Black Hat – the obvious but oft-ignored difference between Niche and Pyramid

I promised a more detailed post on this and after a day of content creation for my niche websites and a week of video editing interviews for my web show, I think it’s time to address Black Hat vs White Hat.

You know what you’re doing.

-Joe Rogan

In the crudest sense, anybody with a big megaphone giving props to someone with a smaller megaphone is doing him/her a favor. That’s why it’s called “props.” If Barack Obama says “Nate Smith has an excellent blog,” he’s transforming my life in a single moment. (More often in the real world, it’s Oprah.)

It’s the same thing as giving somebody money. Literally. Fame/eyeballs is one half of the crucial equation of success (the other half being, in my opinion, great content).

Let me get to the point.

You wouldn’t steal money out of your friend’s bank account, obviously. Accordingly, you wouldn’t steal the mic from Oprah or the president and use it to shout out your own website. (Or you might, but you’d be roundly ostracized and your brand would suffer.)

Why then, would you try to force a link from the web page of somebody more prominent than yourself?

The line gets harder to see as we get more abstract, but it’s there. When we’re giving value away, or even trading value, that’s White Hat. When we’re taking it, that’s Black Hat.

One of the most interesting black hat/white hat dichotomies is between providing niche information and pyramid scamming. The line gets blurred sometimes. Here’s an example.

The niche site building I’m currently doing seeks to provide useful information to people. Whether it’s about the best ways to explore NYC’s outer boroughs or the best practices for escaping for a weekend with your Better Half, I’m working hard to write informative, fun-to-read articles on the subjects and to organize them in an easy-to-navigate fashion.

But I’m not doing it for free. (Well, right now I’m doing it for free, but the intention is eventually to make money.) To that end, I researched to subject matters meticulously to make sure they were subjects people were searching for in google. What’s more, I’m planning to employ search engine optimization, which includes robot article spinners, pen names, and multiple “identities” across the web, to get traffic to my blogs so I can monetize them.

One subject a lot of people are searching for is How to Make Money Online.

I could hypothetically also try to turn this blog into an authority site, blanket the web with SEO linking back to it, etc, and I might even succeed. Heck, I’d probably succeed faster than with my other niche sites.

But I’m not going to do that. It’s pyramid-schemey, and, hence, Black Hat.

An important thing to realize is Black Hat doesn’t mean illegal. There are plenty of totally legal ways to monetize without providing value, and there’s a corresponding ethos that any way you can make a buck, as long as it’s legal, is respectable. Indeed, the above is itself a very useful definition of Black Hat.

So what’s the difference between a niche site and a pyramid scheme?

Let’s remember our first principles-

It’s ethical to give or to trade value, but it’s not ethical to take it without asking.

A pyramid scam is a monetization scheme in which the information being “sold” is information on how to perpetrate the scam on others.

-Instead of teaching you to make and sell lemonade, I teach you to teach others to teach others [in perpetuity] to sell lemonade, and I charge you. Problem? There’s money changing hands, but no actual lemonade being created. This is a pyramid scheme.

-In another scenario, I achieve success making the best lemonade and developing the best way to market and sell it, then you pay me to teach you. You employ some of my strategies and some of your own, and achieve your own lemonade success story, before teaching countless others to do the same.

Similar basic premise, but I would argue the second example is White Hat. Sure, we’re teaching others and charging for it, but there’s lemonade being created for thirsty customers and, most importantly, money being made from that lemonade, instead of from the idea of selling lemonade.

Accordingly, once I achieve success with online business, I could conceivably charge money for a book or website of the lessons I learned. People are getting real value from hearing about how I made real money, and it has worth to them.

Which leads us to our second principle-

It’s ethical to get paid for providing value. It’s unethical to expect to be paid for intentionally representing as valuable something you know is not.

But what distinguishes pyramid schemes from other Black Hat practices is even more specific. You could ethically make money curating or organizing other people’s knowledge about how to make lemonade, so the distinction isn’t only about having done personally the thing you’re monetizing information on. (Though it certainly adds credibility, which is why I’m trying to write only about destinations I’ve experienced firsthand for my travel sites.)

No, what makes a website on making money online authored by someone who hasn’t done it scammy is the tautology – the endless feedback loop of meta-information with no primary information to underpin it. Or, as I put it above, nobody’s making lemonade in any part of the system.

I felt compelled to write about Black Hat because it’s rampant in the online biz community – just read the comments of any popular ebusiness guru and you don’t have to scroll down very far before somebody’s shanghai’ing the comment thread with a non-consensual backlink, often to a website about making money online – but the mores are looser there than in the “real world.”

We wouldn’t tolerate many of these behaviors offline, and I hope as the search engines continue to get better we’ll see fewer and fewer online.

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One thought on “Black Hat – the obvious but oft-ignored difference between Niche and Pyramid

  1. Hmmm . . . . okay. At the moment, I am (just) trying to sell my product (pots I make) online, but this does make sense. I think (agree) that the ethics of it is important intrinsically too – but enough for now ;p

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